It was a regional management conference; probably around 400 strong, with managers and sales people from facilities all across the Midwest.

As these meetings go, it was pretty standard.  A few of the executives took the stage one after another, to speak to the year in review and the upcoming initiatives from each of their functional areas.

Day two was to feature our individual regional meetings.

I almost didn’t make it to Day two.

At the end of day one the agenda called for an executive Q&A.  People with mics were roaming the audience, and one after another, we asked our executives various questions.  I had a question, but I needed to summon up the courage… and then I heard “time for one more question” and I went for it, getting the attention of one of the mic runners …

“Why, after spending tens of millions of dollars to build state-of-the-art, high technology hubs, do we only offer minimum wage to staff them, all but ensuring persistent understaffing and persistent underutilization of the facility?”

I knew as soon as I gave the mic back that I had made a serious error.

The executives looked at each other for an extremely uncomfortable few seconds.  One of them even looked off stage as if seeking some guidance from staff.  I think the VP of Engineering eventually responded.  I have no recollection of what he said.

Because my question was the last question, the session ended on that note.  Not good.  What happened next was not good either …

My boss, the regional manager, made a bee line to me as everyone was dispersing.  He motioned for me to join him at the side of the room, and, once there, he let me know in no uncertain terms that that was unacceptable.  It’s all a blur now; all I remember was totally losing my stomach …

While I didn’t have much of an appetite after that interaction, I did join my regional teammates for dinner.  Some of them witnessed the post-question exchange.  And while the conversation over dinner with them was reaffirming to me, it was little consolation.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a fatal error.  I survived.

I think that this was an early lesson in culture, before I appreciated the dynamics of culture as I do today.  And I want to believe it was also an early lesson in “right, but not helpful” … though, again, without an appreciation of that point until much later.

But, I must admit, the lasting lesson, the one seared into my management hide, was not to ask questions at management conferences.

Never again.